Hunan provincial authorities have launched a new probe into the suspicious death of June 4 activist Li Wangyang, calling in a team of criminal investigators.
Public pressure for an inquiry has been mounting, especially in Hong Kong, where thousands have staged protests.
'Apart from entrusting authoritative forensic experts from outside the province to conduct an autopsy, [we] have launched a further probe by a team of experienced criminal investigation experts,' the Beijing-backed Hong Kong China News Agency quoted a spokesman for the Hunan provincial public security bureau as saying yesterday.
The announcement indicates authorities no longer consider the death of Li (pictured) suicide, as first reported, or accidental, as was later claimed.
The spokesman admitted the probe was largely prompted by the persistent attention and concern over Li's death from overseas media and the public. The findings of the investigation would be publicised in a timely manner, he said.
The intervention of provincial authorities is reminiscent of the Wukan incident, in which a land grab in eastern Guangdong sparked a protest by hundreds of villagers. One protester died in custody and the town was surrounded by 1,000 police. The siege was only lifted when provincial officials intervened to resolve the issue peacefully.
Li's friends and a veteran rights lawyer said they welcomed the announcement of the fresh investigation into the death of Li. But they said it remained unclear whether numerous suspicions surrounding Li's death could be addressed given his body was hastily cremated on Saturday.
'It is more of a gesture for provincial police authorities to get involved,' said Yin Zhengan , a close friend of Li. 'I can hardly see positive prospects for a convincing result because the most telling evidence has been destroyed with the cremation of Li's body.'
Meanwhile, in Shaoyang , where Li died, the city's police chief, Li Xiaokui , told close friends that he 'didn't order the killing' of the democracy activist.
He also told friends that the Li case 'was very complex' and expressed fears that he might be made the scapegoat for Li's death in the Daxiang district hospital on the morning of June 6.
The police chief's remarks are further evidence Li's death was not suicide, as hospital authorities initially claimed. A Daxiang district government statement on Sunday had already changed the wording from 'suicide' to 'accidental death', while also quoting a roommate as saying Li was 'acting weird' hours before he was found hanged in a hospital ward.
Relatives and friends of Li, who had recently been released after 21 years in jail, refuse to believe he killed himself.
In Hong Kong, outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen raised doubts about Li's death for the first time during a question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council. He said he had reflected the views of Hongkongers to the central government.
But chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying remained silent on whether he had doubts about the claim that Li killed himself, saying only: 'My personal feeling on this matter is the same as Hong Kong people's. I too have feelings.' He said he would 'reflect Hongkongers' opinion', without saying to whom or how he defined such opinion.